The 808 redefined rhythm sections across the world
Rob Woj
12:11 3rd April 2017

The pioneering engineer who co-founded the Roland Corporation has died aged 87. Ikutaro Kakehashi invented the legendary TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines, and helped pioneer MIDI technology. Brian Eno, Matthew Herbert, Paul Epworth, Questlove, and The Prodigy are amongst those who have paid tribute.

As the founder of Roland, Ikutaro Kakehashi, helped pioneer a set of instruments that would change the trajectory of electronic music forever. Founding the Roland Corporation in 1972, Kakehashi would go on to invent the TR-808 drum machine, as well as a whole host of other synthesisers and drum machines.

Announcing the news of his death on Facebook, Roland demonstrator, Tommy Synder, called Kakehashi a ‘second father’.

The news has now been confirmed by ATV Corporation, who Kakehashi joined after leaving Roland in 2013. Tributes have poured in across the internet from musicians across the world.

Born in Osaka in 1930, Ikutaro Kakehashi, suffered a difficult and problematic childhood. After leaving school at 16, he used a high school education in mechanical engineering to start his own watch-making business. But after battling long-term health issues in his late teens, he was moved to start Ace Electronics, a company devoted to making electronic instruments.

Still based in Japan, Ace Electronics secured a contract making combo rhythm boxes for Hammond Organs. Bringing in enough money to experiment, on the side Kakehashi made the prototype experiments that would form the backbone for his pioneering instruments.

Kakehashi founded Roland in 1972. By 1978 Roland was a global name, exporting musical equipment all over the world. One of Kakehashi’s earliest successes, was the CR-78 drum machine, a landmark instrument that used emerging technology in micro-computing to allow musicians to make programmable beats.

Kakehashi’s instruments were machines of fun. Invented often to purely recreational items, Roland’s line of electronic instruments were targeted at amateur musicians who wanted to make demos. On launching the TR-808, the drum machine that would go on to make his name, he marketed it as a machine that would allow anyone, anywhere to be able to make drum patterns without the need for a real drum kit.

The 808 redefined rhythm sections across the world, and instead of replacing backing musicians as it had originally intended to do, it helped birth an era of studio experimentation that’s legacy can still be felt today.

Producing only 12,000 in the 808’s first production run, Roland’s machines were picked up by studios across the world. Admired for its ability to be manipulated by engineers and producers, the 808 quickly built a legacy amongst musicians. It quickly became an influential piece of kit amongst samplers in New York, finding it’s way into the b-boy and hip-hop scene. The 808’s first became commercially renowned after appearing on Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’.

Going on to become of the mostly widely influential pieces of kit in a commercial studio, the 808 went on to be used by Madonna, The Human League, Marvin Gaye, Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy.

Today, Kakehashi’s legacy is widely felt, and tributes paid to his death prove just how wide-spanning effect on music was. Hip-hop, soul, R&B, electro, funk, and house were just a few of the genres that Kakehashi helped revolutionize, but his effects can be widely felt in ambient, rock, jazz, and pop music over the last 40 years.

Perhaps one of the biggest things that made Kakehashi’s instruments so popular was the stories that went with them. Each sound and sample had its own history. Quite often they were the product of half-baked experiments with confusing outcomes, but Kakehashi always stated this was part of the fun of his work.

He inspired many towards experimentation in the studio or at home, pushing the idea that it was through experimentation and mistakes that truly great music was produced. With Roland instruments, you could never do anything wrong, just further the progression of the kind of music that could be made with this technology.

Whilst the cause of Kakehashi’s death remains unknown, reports show that he passed away on Saturday peacefully, after suffering years of debilitating health difficulties. Spending his last few years working with a tube to help aid his breathing, in 2013, Kakehashi received a technical Grammy for contributions to electronic music technology.

Leaving Roland in 2013 to set up ATV Corporation, Kakehashi worked right up until his last few days, to pioneer new technology for making music.

Speaking to the BBC this morning, a number of musicians charted the legacy of Kakehashi’s work.

“The Roland gear began to be a kind of Esperanto in music. The whole world began to be less separated through this technology, and there was a classiness to it – you could transcend your provincial music with this equipment,” said Graham Massey of 808 State.

“Roland was central to everything that we did for the whole of the first two albums – they featured on every track,” said Martyn Ware, keyboard player of The Human League.

Listen below to a selection of tunes that Kakehashi’s machines helped make:

Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force – Planet Rock


Beastie Boys – Paul Revere

Original Concept – Knowledge

T La Rock and Jazzy J – Its Yours

Run DMC – It’s Like That

Marvin Gaye – Sexual Healing

S.O.S Band – Just Be Good To Me

Public Enemy – Bring The Noise

Strafe – Set It Off

Man Parrish – Hip Hop, Be Bop

Soul II Soul - Keep on Movin’

Madonna – Vogue

Nine Inch Nails – Closer

Soft Cell – Tainted Love

The Human League – Don’t You Want Me